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A CurtainUp Review
After the Fair
by Les Gutmanr

It's billed as a New Romantic Musical, but it's based on a century-old story.  It looks Victorian, but it feels oddly post-modern; it sounds like it splits the difference. What are we to make of After the Fair? A hybrid? Perhaps. Some talented performers and a director who adroitly moves them about? Definitely. A sleeper? Yes, but unfortunately not in the sense that producers may have hoped.

Stephen Cole's book for this musical is based loosely -- purists will say very loosely -- on a short story by Thomas Hardy entitled, "On the Western Circuit". The latter can be found in a collection of his stories and character sketches called Life's Little Ironies. If you're thinking Hardy is a peculiar source for the raw material of a new romantic musical, you're on the right track.

Charles Bradford Raye (James Ludwig), a handsome, young London barrister who is employed traveling the "circuit," finds himself in Melchester, 100 miles from home, at the time of the local fair. He has a tryst with an attractive local maid (meaning, here, chambermaid, not maiden), Anna (Jennifer Piech). Anna is employed by a childless (not by choice) middle-aged couple, the Harnham's, Edith (Michele Pawk) and Arthur (David Staller). Mrs. H. has taken a liking to Anna, and is trying to teach her to read and write. Arthur is a wealthy wine merchant who falls asleep in his chair alot, and tells clumsy jokes when he's awake. Edith, as bored as we are with her life, lost interest in him a long time ago.

Back in London, Charles writes a letter to Anna, but Anna needs Edith to do her reading and writing. Things quickly get out of control as Edith goes from scribe to editor to author. Edith's fantasy hits a bump in the road when Anna discovers she is pregnant by Edith's "beloved" Charles, he, naturally, has fallen in love not with the mother of his child but with the person he assumes has written all of these beautiful letters.

One gets a manufactured sense from this production. The book works hard to maintain Hardy's restrained tone, but punctuates it with counterpoints of humor that feel as if they were added by committee. Similarly, while it generally observes Victorian protocols, we are jolted by a more contemporary sauciness at unpredictable intervals. And I don't know what to make of the feminist overlay Cole casts on Edith.

The music mostly mirrors the same patterns: reasonably attractive if uninteresting songs interrupted by a few perky numbers that seem concocted solely to respond to a perceived need for an energy boost. (The best, such as "A Spot of Tea," test one's imagination to discover its relevance.) With all of its reading of letters, it would be hard not to compare this show with Sondheim's Passion, but passion is one of the many things After the Fair lacks.

What the production is not short on is talent. It's a good chance to see two recent Broadway faces in a far more intimate surrounding. Pawk (late of Cabaret) shows here that she can flex her range with aplomb, portraying Edith with a proper mixture of reserve and frustrated dreaming. Piech comes close to reprising her memorable role as one of the three Kate's in Titanic, and is quite endearing. Staller is impressive, giving a carefully mannered portrayal of the aloof and controlling Arthur. Ludwig is also a good if unremarkable Charles.

James Morgan creates an exceptional set design: simple, agile and still very evocative. He is able to accommodate the many scene shifts essentially on a set stage, nicely enhanced by Michael Lincoln's lighting. Costumes, a joint effort by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, provide everything we could ask or expect for the upper middle class turn-of-the-century setting. Musical accompaniment, under Georgia Stitt's direction, is quite good, making the most of Matthew Ward's mostly dreary score with two keyboards accented by reeds and cello.

Travis Stockley's direction is often quite clever: surprisingly snappy and clear. Too bad he couldn't find a recipe that added a little spice to the material.

Book and lyrics by Stephen Cole, based on a story by Thomas Hardy 
Directed by Travis L. Stockley 
with James Ludwig, Michele Pawk, Jennifer Piech and David Staller 
Set Design: James Morgan 
Lighting Design: Michael Lincoln 
Costume Design: Michael Bottari and Ronald Case 
Orchestrations: David Siegel 
Musical Direction: Georgia Stitt 
A York Theatre Company presentation 
Theatre at Saint Peter's, Citicorp Center, 619 Lexington Avenue (@54th Street) (212) 239-6200 
opened July 15, 1999 closes August 15 
Seen July 14, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman July 16, 1999
©Copyright July 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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